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Irony In Tomas More’s Utopia And Dante Alighieri's Inferno

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Irony is a conventional rhetorical device used by authors to convey to their readers an incongruity with the aim to relay humor or ridicule, or to depreciate an idea. Thomas More’s Utopia and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno present perfect examples where irony is used to influence an audience’s understanding of different themes. This technique can be found in numerous scenes within each text. For example, dialogues, sceneries, and titles portrayed in these works all contain irony. In both Utopia and Inferno, the authors use irony to try and reform individual thinking patterns in the reader. Despite the authors’ divergent views and specific authorial intent, this technique can be observed in each text.

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Inferno illustrates Alighieri’s journey as he wanders from moral truth into hell. Alighieri claims that Santa Lucia and the Virgin Mary asked his deceased lover, Beatrice, to send him assistance. As a result of her intervention, Virgil surfaces and rescues Alighieri from hell and brings him to the mortal world where he had been previously. However, the descriptions Alighieri provide are quite ironic because they differ invariably from typical human conceptions of hell and the things that happen inside it. Alighieri employs the use of irony to challenge people’s understanding of hell, especially in Western civilization. The first instance of irony in the book is about hell itself. As indicated, people usually perceive hell as a chaotic and disarrayed place. However, Alighieri presents it as an organized, funnel-shaped cave at the center of earth’s bottom with a series of rotating sleds around the great circular depression (Alighieri 25). In many occasions, individuals perceive hell as consisting of distressed images with demons and people running around in turmoil with no sense of organization. Alighieri draws a different map of hell to illustrate a more unobstructed view of his conception. It manifests the application of irony to demonstrate a structured hell contrary to popular imagination.

Situational irony also manifests in the text, particularly when the Pilgrim displays emotions in Canto 8 towards Argenti. While moving through the circles of hell, Alighieri and Virgil discover that each sin attracts a distinct punishment. The people who always complained while alive are crouched in the mud where they spend eternity. Situational irony manifests in this instance since the punishment meted upon individuals in the afterlife depends on their choice of lifestyle on earth. Alighieri also feels a great empathy and even weeps whenever he meets anyone that had been damned to spend eternity in hell. The previous encounters prepare the reader to expect Alighieri to display feelings of terror towards Florentine on realizing that he would spend his entire afterlife in Styx. However, Alighieri responds to Argenti with rage. Besides, Alighieri weeps and loses consciousness in Canto 5 during his conversation with Francesca. The irony is that instead of pitying Argenti, he desires more pain upon him. Alighieri also commits irony punishable within hell; he sins within an unholy domain comprising of sinners. His hypocrisy retrospectively places him on the same pedestal as Argenti which is critical to the understanding of the entire book as it indicates the imperfection of the Pilgrim and the need for him to learn several things as he proceeds on his journey.

Likewise, Thomas More’s Utopia also applies a great deal of irony to depict the mystical lives and prosperity of the people within his epic. Utopia presents a different perspective from today’s accepted universal truths. The differences between each worldview manifests through the systems the people use to protect themselves against aggression, land rights systems, the economy, social relations, and marriages. There is a considerable difference within these areas between the perspectives of Western civilizations and More’s utopian world. The dissimilarities reveal the issues that Western society takes for granted. Through the use of irony, the author manages to demonstrate to the reader the positive and negative aspects of the West.

Unlike Western societies where nations utilize vast resources to protect themselves from external invasions, More’s utopian world has a different system for securing its borders. The people within the Utopia do not fight but hire machinery to fight on their behalf. This is a strange policy as historical information demonstrates that this is an ineffective strategy. Nevertheless, they cling to it on the belief that soldiers are only driven by the need for money. Thus, they can pay for their protection due to the extensive gold and silver deposits within their territory. Although this fictional practice tries to illustrate an ideal way of life, the reality is quite different as human soldiers are likely to fight harder than machinery to protect their home country.

It is evident that More’s conception of a utopian world purposely focuses on indirectly criticizing Western problems and their solutions. His discourse focuses on the opposite of the issues he criticizes. The character Raphael Hythloday discusses the history and the geography of the island. The discussion allows More to demonstrate the characteristics of a Western society that he finds quite problematic some of which include the tyranny of the ruling class, outdated systems of education, and corruption. More uses irony to contemplate the need to correct societal imbalances to adopt an ideal lifestyle. This strategy enables him to recommend reforms that would amend the imperfect socioeconomic and political systems and inculcate a communal lifestyle within his utopian world. Furthermore, an ironic rhetorical device enables More to present his ideal society in a manner that eliminates dissension through placing people within an institutional setup that encourages benign instincts while suppressing harmful ones. Thus, irony allows the author to create a calm felicity and pits the people within a perfect moral commonwealth against the tyranny and corrupt Western system that exploits them for the benefit of the ruling elites.

The irony in Utopia has also been explored by different scholars. For example, one author mentions the humanist wit inculcated by More in the book and the style used to present his arguments. Surtz also observes More’s skillful and subtle application of irony at the end of the book when he illustrates that the communism of Utopia outperforms the nobility, majesty, magnificence, and honor of the Western civilization (Surtz as cited by Brake 183). However, Surtz maintains that these should not be the primary distinguishing features of the commonwealth hence the introduction of ironic criticism of the utopia at the book’s end.

The element of irony illustrates the misconception of utilizing Hythloday’s communist commonwealth as More’s ideal utopian society. As a preeminently self-made individual, More schooled himself in political philosophy and virtue, thus, enabling him to possess the art and science of ruling. His convictions facilitated within him the notion that political liberty depends on personal merit, and this could not be substituted by institutional arrangements. As a result, he believed that political leaders should pursue consultation, education, political free speech, and rhetoric for self-advancement. More also uses irony to test the character of people within his immediate surroundings. He considers literature as having a primary civilizing influence over law which the state holds indispensable.

Utopia is a literary text concerned with critical economic and political issues in Western soceity. The book’s primary narrator, Raphael Hythloday, is liar, a behavior he manifests in several instances within the text. Hythloday believes that he is the only person possessing secret and absolute knowledge although this is a fabrication that ignores critical realities that More had learned in his youthful days in preparation for civic leadership.

Therefore, while Inferno and Utopia invariably differ in numerous aspects, the rhetorical device of irony helps the authors to advance their theories and facilitate different interpretations of the books. More uses the technique to criticize the corruption and tyranny of the ruling elites in Western societies with the intention of not only presenting amusing cases but also advancing a more precise and biting critique. Thus, the book purposely focuses on reforming peoples’ thought processes rather than reforming institutions. Similarly, irony causes the readers of Inferno to question their knowledge and beliefs about hell and morality. The analysis of irony within the two texts shows the power of this device to change people’s perspectives on different issues within society.

Works Cited

  • Alighieri, Dante. Inferno. 2008. https://moshekafrica.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Inferno-by-Dante-PDF.pdf.
  • Bostaph, Samuel. ‘Deepening the Irony of Utopia: A Mises/Hayek Perspective 03/08/07.’
  • Brake, Brittany Page. ‘Political Utopias of the Renaissance: An Analysis of Thomas More’s Utopia, Johann Valentinus Andreae’s Christianopolis, and James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana.’ (2016).
  • More, Thomas. Utopia. United States: Planet eBook, 1516. https://www.planetebook.com/free-ebooks/utopia.pdf.
  • Sünder, Miriam. ‘Satire and Ambiguity in Thomas More’s Utopia.’ (2014).
10 Jun 2021

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